Kachina-Doll Feud Divides Two Tribes


In the rough and tumble world of cheap souvenirs, it’s getting tougher and tougher to compete. Here in the Southwest, Native American artifacts reign supreme.

In bygone days, visitors would purchase real arrowheads and authentic clay pots. Today, tourists drive off in station wagons strewn with plastic tomahawks and fake turquoise jewelry.

Through it all, the Hopi kachina doll has seemed schlock-proof. The elegant, delicately carved wooden dolls representing myriad Hopi deities have become one of the region’s most emblematic and sought-after crafts. Now, even the kachina has succumbed to less expensive knockoffs.

A rash of faux kachinas created by Navajo carvers has been flooding the market, and the usually reserved Hopi people are fighting mad. Although the knockoffs have been around for years, the volume has increased in recent months, at the height of the summer tourist season. “Practically every Hopi is concerned,” said Millard Lomakema, executive director of the Hopi Arts and Crafts Guild on the reservation.


Hopis are initiated into knowledge about more than 300 kachinas, which Hopis believe are gods. Tribal members learn when kachinas appear, in which ceremony and at what time of year. The kachina dolls are sacred objects used in the ceremonies, from February to July. The dolls are given to children in the off-season so they don’t forget what the deities look like.

Lomakema said that the knockoffs are easy to spot. “I’m an initiated Hopi and have participated in every kachina ceremony through the year,” he said. “We have to dress them; we know where the paint goes, where the feather goes, even the position, how he stands. I can tell right off.”

Navajo tribal leaders don’t want to get involved in the controversy and say they can’t regulate what each member does.

But according to Anna Silas, manager of the Hopi Museum in Second Mesa, Ariz., non-Hopi kachinas are an affront to the tribe. “It would be like us taking the Apache Devil Dance,” she said.

The squabble between the Hopi and Navajo tribes is as much about the siphoning of needed income as the hijacking of cultural tradition.

The Hopi dolls can take from a week to a month to carve. Tradition dictates that only men carve the cottonwood figures. It is estimated that there are 200 full-time Hopi carvers.

Navajo dolls, carved of balsa wood, are produced en masse, often by entire families. Arizona newspapers have alluded to the existence of kachina-doll “factories” on the Navajo reservation, though none have been documented.

And, in the competitive souvenir market, there is a huge demand for the low end. Navajo dolls may sell for as little as $10. Hopi kachina dolls start at about $100 and can fetch as much as $15,000.


“The kachina has become so popular, even the European market has opened for them,” said Sandy Michael Daiza, owner of Sewell’s Indian Arts in Scottsdale. “The Navajo [doll] is produced so quickly. It’s cheaper. We label the dolls and make it clear it’s Hopi or Navajo. If you want to decorate your home, a Navajo doll would be fine. If you want to be a collector, go Hopi.”

The Hopis--a far smaller group--have little protection from the ersatz dolls. The Indian Arts and Crafts Protection Act prevents non-Indians from claiming arts and crafts to be tribal product, but nothing prevents one tribe from imitating another’s craft.

“Their work technically meets the letter of the law, but it’s members of another tribe appropriating the religious symbolism of another tribe,” said Leigh Jenkins, director of the Hopi tribe’s cultural preservation office.

Jenkins said he has raised the matter with an intertribal council and plans to seek state legislative relief.


Some Hopis question why the Navajos create kachina dolls, when in their own culture they have Yeis, which are depicted in Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

“I’ve spoken with the Navajos at several conferences,” Lomakema said. “I have suggested to the Navajo people: ‘You and I have very beautiful culture and religion of our own. I would be very proud that I have this rich and beautiful culture. If I put it on the market, I would do my own, not copy. Why can’t you Navajos do the same?’ ”